A Few Drinks and a Hymn:
My Farewell to Samuel Beckett
Date: April 17, 1994, The New York Times, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By John Montague
I AM in Paris, and although I am staying in Montparnasse, the scene of most of our meetings and nocturnal revels, I am reluctant to call on Beckett. His last note said that he was "in an old crock's home," but hoped to be "out and about under my own steam and back for the boulevard and fit for company again." But word is out that he is ill, dying indeed, and I am loath to say goodbye to an old friend of over a quarter of a century's standing. Besides, I have a broken leg, and am barely mobile myself. But I have a mission to accomplish as well: to enlist him in "The Great Book of Ireland."
A message comes that he wants to see me, so I hobble and swing over to the taxi rank beside the Dome, where we have so often sat drinking and talking. Then down Raspail, another of our routes, to the lion of Denfert Rochereau. At night he would go left, down Boulevard St. Jacques, as I turned into the Rue Daguerre, with "God bless" as his last, uncanny salutation, a familiar Irish phrase made strange by his worldwide reputation for godlessness.
The clinic is in a side street off Boulevard Leclerc, up which the French general led his liberating troops. A few patients are resting in the courtyard, under winter trees, a tranquil enclosed setting. I find the door of "Monsieur Beckett" without difficulty, knock, and swing in. He is sitting in a bare room, at one of two small desks, with a stark iron bed behind. He rises to embrace me, kissing me, to my surprise, on both cheeks; he is not usually so demonstrative. "Ah, John. You managed it."
The eyes are watery but briefly, almost defiantly, bright, as they focus and almost smile.
"It was so good of you to come. And you bad yourself. How's the leg?"
And as I falter a few inconsequential, deprecatory details, he starts to shuffle around. From the familiar, angular athleticism of even his 70's, he is now slowed, slowed considerably, to the dragging gait of one of his own characters. But he is intent on finding a chair for me to sit at his side, and there we are, face to face, as often before. "And how are you?" I ask.
A phrase I have not heard since my aunt Mary lay dying, but the Irishism comes as naturally to him. And again the eyes focus on me, and I am astounded as always by their size and color, large as blue marbles. But clouded now, not watchful or challenging. "I'm done," again, with the same vehemence. "But it takes such a long time."
He pauses and draws a breath. There is a breathing machine in the corner, like a small trolley. "I sat beside my father when he was dying. Fight, fight, fight, he kept saying. But I have no fight left."
A gesture of resignation and, perhaps, disappointment. Sensing an opening, I feel brave enough for a direct question, even without the ritual glass before me: "And now that it's nearly over, Sam, can I ask you, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?"
The blue eyes briefly ignite. "Precious little." And in case I did not hear or comprehend, he repeats it with redoubled force, "Precious little!" But then a thought strikes him, and as if to contradict his own natural, now justified gloom, he directs us toward his second-best desk, collecting a bottle of whisky and glasses as he goes.
"Now that you're here, there's a job to be done." He settles into the second desk seat and, with surprising vigor, empties out a cylinder marked "Poetry Ireland." Curling vellum pages, a small black ink bottle, a long slender pen and a covering letter. "This man Dorgan, is he all right?" he asks peremptorily.
As I struggle to explain the many qualities of Theo Dorgan, my former student and now a well-known Irish poet, Beckett cuts me short, and points to the official note paper of Poetry Ireland, the arts organization of which I am president: "He must be all right: your name's on the masthead." I read with him over his shoulder: the letter describes the "Great Book of Ireland" project, a lavish compendium of the poets and artists of Ireland, which Theo hopes will subsidize Irish poetry till the end of time.
The scroll will not stay put. Baffled, Beckett wrestles with the vellum, whilst I set up the small black ink bottle, with the skinny nib to dip in it. Finally, I have to hold down the curling corners, as he strives to write what may be his last lines: he died four years ago last December, 13 days after my visit. He would have been 88 on April 13. The lines are not new: he has chosen a quatrain written after his father's death, and the implications for his own demise, so long attended, are all too clear.
Redeem the surrogate goodbyes
the sheet astream in your hand
who have no more for the land
and the glass unmisted above your eyes.
The sheet is not astream, but bucking and bounding, and his hands are shaking. Twice he has to stroke out lines, but he still goes on, with that near ferocity I associate with him, until the four lines are copied, in the center of a page. He looks at me, I look down to check, and murmur appropriate approval. He rolls the vellum, and with due ceremony hands it over to me, with the carton. Then, with a gesture of finality, he sweeps the lot, ink bottle, long black pen and spare pages of vellum, into the wastepaper bin.
Job done, we rest a while, glasses in hand. He shows me the books he has been reading, old favorites; "The Oxford Book of French Verse," which he probably studied at Trinity College, Dublin, under his beloved Rudmose Brown, who introduced him to contemporary French literature. And "The Penguin Book of English Verse," with a few later volumes of his own and, to my embarrassment, my recent essays, "The Figure in the Cave," wedged between.
"I've been reading Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale.' It's very beautiful."
It happens to be a poem that I heartily loathe, with its smarmy Cockney view of beauty, but this is not the time for sparring matches, even if fueled by Jameson's. His barriers are down, his sympathies simple, he has gone back to the pleasant discoveries of boyhood. I say instead that I have never heard him use the word "beautiful" except in connection with Yeats. He nods. "Ah, yes, yes, beautiful, too."
He will not let me pour, but sloshes more whisky into our glasses: "I got your new book. I see you mention me. And Goldsmith. Ah, he was a nice man. I liked what you said about me: the writing is good."
I don't dare ask more, but do mention something that has troubled me, a recent rumor. "Is it true that you are dictating something about yourself, something autobiographical?"
He rears back. "Oh, no, nothing like that, just tidying up the letters. Getting things straight. Only the professional details, nothing personal."
But the note has been struck, and I sound it again. "And where do you want to be, when you go?"
"Ah, next door, in Montparnasse. With the wife. We knew each other for 50 years. We played tennis together when we met, and after I was stabbed on the street by the clochard she came back. Ah, yes, with the wife. We were friends for 50 years."
Friends stands out; he does not say, "We loved each other for 50 years," or suchlike. Perhaps it is a translation of the French all-purpose word, ami? More whisky is being poured. In our previous meeting, we had discussed the death of an old friend, A. J. (Con) Leventhal, after a long and pleasure-loving life. When I mentioned how much he was liked by the ladies, Beckett had said, admiringly, "He certainly had a lot of them," as if speaking of a stable of horses. But I keep to the present.
"Who's looking after things, the other things?"
"Edward, the nephew: he's very good. He's in the flat at the moment. He'll do everything that has to be done. Would you have another drink?"
THERE is no drink left. I rise to help, but he waves me down, shuffling across the room again, a speeding snail. He lugs across a liter bottle of Bushmill's malt, clearly a gift from an unknown benefactor. And benefactor it is, because for once I feel totally at ease with Sam, stocious and glorious, as though something had been completed. We discuss the visiting writer program I am over for, and he gives me a commission for Jack Lang, the Minister of Culture, to whom he feels he owes a favor done for his niece, Caroline. Beckett the family man; I'm impressed as always by his (Protestant?) punctiliousness.
And then, to my astonishment, he tries a stave of an old Protestant hymn: "Do you know that one?" I try to join in, in Catholic good fellowship, but unfamiliarity does not help. It is not "Rock of Ages," or Cardinal Newman's "Lead, Kindly Light," so incongruously sung by the Protestant Miss Fitt in Beckett's radio play "All That Fall," but the gloomy lines of Baring-Gould, beloved also by Auden. When the words grind to a halt, we grin and try again:
Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh;
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.
Of course, the hymn in "Watt." And indeed it is time to go: we have been most of the afternoon together. I help him to tidy the desk, arrange his books. He stands up, to embrace me on both cheeks for the second time. Those flaring jug ears, that furrowed brow above staring seagull's eyes, the limber spare body, now slowed by time: I will never see it, or him, again. He presses into my left hand a last present, a rare publication, "Teleplays," a catalogue of his television scripts; the carton is suspended from my right crutch. We do not discuss a further meeting as I swing out the door. In this side street, a taxi will be hard to find. v
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